The Three Twists of the 2024 Campaign That Really Killed Ron DeSantis

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The Three Twists of the 2024 Campaign That Really Killed Ron DeSantis

Politics

DeSantis was always Republicans’ top alternative to Trump. But they didn’t need an alternative.

DeSantis pouts, with a huge shadow of Donald Trump projected behind him on a red wall

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.

For as long as the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign existed, it was a fireworks display of hired hands trying to avoid blame for why irate donors’ hundreds of millions weren’t stopping Donald Trump. Campaign managers and strategists came and went, as did their super PAC counterparts. Reboots? They had a few.

Even before DeSantis suspended his campaign prior to the first presidential primary, the obituaries—a sort of arbitration process for Team DeSantis members to iron out their competing cover-your-ass claims—were streaming out. Just hours before DeSantis dropped out on Sunday, for example, we learned from NBC News that the latest head of DeSantis’ paper-tiger super PAC, Never Back Down, was “spending a significant amount of time in the precious final few days” before the Iowa caucuses “constructing a peaceful 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a landscape.”

“The fact that one of the top people in charge of securing a win for DeSantis in Iowa was spending time on something unrelated to the caucuses,” the first draft of history reads, “was emblematic of the mismanagement and wasted efforts that many of DeSantis’ own supporters say have plagued the campaign from the very beginning.”

The anecdote, replete with a clandestine photo of office puzzle-work being done, is absolutely funny. Not, however, because it’s ludicrous that someone might do a puzzle for sanity’s sake in moments of downtime. The Iowa winner was already well determined, and DeSantis ended up outperforming his polling in the state anyway. What’s funny is the pettiness of the finger-pointing, as if a tactical mistake in this or that moment—or even the summation of all of them—might have made the difference.

It wouldn’t have. DeSantis proved to be no one’s vision of a natural, smooth candidate on the stump. Ideally, you want a pol who does not lick his whole face when he finishes speaking. But the answer to the question DeSantis had decided to test—do Republican voters want someone other than Donald Trump?—turned out to be a hard “no.” The DeSantis operation didn’t lose because it was a dramatic mess. It was a dramatic mess because it couldn’t win.

Plenty of other Republicans with presidential ambitions recognized this earlier. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Rick Scott, Larry Hogan, Mike Pompeo, Kristi Noem, and Glenn Youngkin all recognized that the odds of winning the nomination or becoming a laughingstock were sharply tilted toward the latter. It was best to fold.

Part of the reason they saw no space, though, was because DeSantis had already won the pre-primary race for top Trump alternative. He became the unquestionable non-Trump leader of the party during the early Biden years, having turned Florida from a purple state into a fully operational MAGA experiment. He romped to a landslide reelection as governor in 2022, a midterm year that Trump had otherwise blown for Republicans. In the aftermath of the 2022 debacle, DeSantis briefly overtook Trump in early trial heats of the hypothetical contest.

Why couldn’t he maintain the lead, beyond the passage of time and voters forgetting about how Trump had biffed the last election? We could blame: a glitchy campaign launch on Twitter; too late of a campaign launch; pudding fingers; interpersonal awkwardness; Anthony Fauci fading as a villain; poor “messaging” in lieu of strategy; not engaging with the mainstream media enough; overspending; or whatever. These are the weapons of blame-dodging consultants trying to remain employable going forward. But DeSantis never became unpopular among Republicans over the course of the year when he took flak each and every day; he remains much more popular among Republicans than the last non-Trump candidate standing in the race. He just couldn’t convince voters, even those who liked him, that he’d make a better main character on their favorite show.

Three developments over the course of 2023 stand out to me as dooming DeSantis—or any other Republican challenger to Trump—and none of them have to do with DeSantis or his campaign behaving like weirdos.

First, the indictments. Trump was first indicted in New York state at the end of March 2023, and Trump’s leap in polling was observable from outer space. Indictment Summer changed the question of the race from one in which Republicans were determining which candidate they might want to one in which they needed to stand by their man in the endgame of a long-in-the-works Deep State conspiracy. None of the other candidates could find a way to attack Trump’s rampant indictability without tanking their own Republican favorability numbers; none of them even really tried, outside of the race’s aspiring kamikaze, Chris Christie. Indeed, the candidates felt politically compelled to defend their central opponent in the race while ceding crucial earned media time to him. The base was bound to Trump.

Second, President Joe Biden’s own approval ratings slipped from bad to calamitous. If the pitch was that DeSantis could be an electable version of MAGA, it lost its bite when Trump showed he, too, could be an electable version of MAGA—perhaps even more electable than DeSantis—while the more moderate party rump most preoccupied with “electability” in the first place went with Nikki Haley.

Third, the Trump campaign made the strategic call of the cycle in refusing to participate in debates. Trump denied DeSantis a platform on which the two could appear, center-stage, as equals and do his best to change the trajectory of the race. The debates, instead, came off as what they were—a race for second place—and forced DeSantis to take incoming from third-tier candidates while allowing Haley to consolidate the minority non-MAGA wing of the party. Trump is a quasi-incumbent who ran an incumbent’s campaign, and incumbents don’t often lose. We won’t have thousands of damning features about why Dean Phillips or Marianne Williamson failed to topple Joe Biden when they drop out.

Could the DeSantis campaign have tried to hit Trump harder where it counts, rather than his tiddlywinks criticisms here or there about how Trump deferred too much to Anthony Fauci in April 2020? In his desperate closing in Iowa, DeSantis did go more directly after Trump’s character. “You can be the strongest, most dynamic, successful Republican and conservative in America,” DeSantis said at one Iowa event, “but if you don’t kiss that ring, then he’ll try to trash you.” More direct truth-telling like this could have cut through the brainwashing. Or it could have sent him packing with Mike Pence in October.

In spite of how things turned out, I don’t believe DeSantis made a mistake in entering the presidential race, or that seven-figure check writers seeking an alternative to Trump made a mistake in seeding his campaign. (Hey, it’s not my money being blown.) Politicians do have to seize their moments when they come, and DeSantis could have been old news by 2028—just as Chris Christie was by 2016 after skipping his moment in 2012. And those who invested their hopes and passive incomes in DeSantis as the most likely candidate to wrest the nomination from Trump weren’t wrong. Haley is only remaining in the race because the anomalous New Hampshire primary electorate offers a fleeting opportunity for a moderate Republican coalition to compete. That’ll be over soon. Who else could it have been? Can you imagine what Trump would have done to Glenn Youngkin and his fleece vests? You’d better believe that Glenn Youngkin imagined it.

Perhaps a wizard could’ve created space between Trump and the primary electorate that he owns. In lieu of that, Trump skeptics had to settle for Ron DeSantis. We’re almost certainly being too generous to DeSantis, but this puzzle was missing too many pieces to solve.

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